should a historian become an archivist? details inside
April 24, 2010 10:26 AM   Subscribe

should a historian become an archivist?

I live in a small European country. I got a PhD in history a couple of years ago and have been mostly employed as a lecturer and tutor ever since. I am still working, however, in the same university I did all my undergraduate and postgraduate work in. I am very dedicated and love teaching, but I feel very personally stunted by never having left my alma mater. My department and my supervisor were very laissez faire on career development and in 7 years (count them) I've only done 5 conferences (only one outside the country I live in), and published nothing. The current economic situation makes it seem like I would be better off looking abroad for work, but I have a very stable and quite happy set up in the city that I live in and I'm reluctant to leave it. Part of the reason for not having published is that I work on a pre-modern topic which demands a lot of archival time to do it properly and I am meticulous (I am working on two articles now in the spare time that I have). I know that I am capable of eventually producing quite a good book if I continue to research, and those who’ve worked with me show a lot of faith in my abilities, but the realities of this situation are depressing me. Paying off a loan I got to finish my doctoral studies while living below the minimum wage is really taking its toll at this stage. Additionally, I’d really like to see Japan before I die, write a novel, play in a band, etc, and I've found that the cycle in academia has been the same since I started as a postgraduate. By the time term comes to an end, I'm a nervous wreck with stress and RSI, exhausted, and feeling stale and bored from working on the same material all the time (I’m 28, and I’ve been in college continuously – and yes, I’ve read the Anatomy of Melancholy and I know what ‘overmuch study’ does to a person in theory and in practice)

So, I'm thinking about spending next year getting a masters in archival and records management in a different university instead of hanging around waiting for a post-doc that suits my subject to come up. I read this:, which made me pause. I love libraries and archives and can get obsessively absorbed in looking at books and manuscripts for hours, but I also enjoy working with other people, which teaching allows for. Ideally I’d like to be a rare books librarian or pre-modern manuscript archivist and continue to publish academically while also making enough money to not have to constantly worry about it and make future plans, but I’m finding thus far that my teaching load is too onerous to do both except outside of term time. I'm also hoping that my theoretical and practical knowledge of the material I'm already familiar with can be built on if I work in the kind of archives that have this material. Am I concieving things from a historian's perspective and getting it wrong? Has anyone made this transition and did they have different experiences to Clio?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (5 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I took this path in the days before archive admin diplomas were always required. Becoming an archivist is likely not a painless solution to your difficulties. Firstly, getting a job is highly highly competitive, nowadays, you'll need not only your archive admin diploma but a lot of work experience. Secondly if you think you'll get to research and spend time working on your specialist field, think again. This is rare. My friends who are still in the profession hardly get to do any specialist cataloguing. We had to spend most of our time listing at superficial levels large collections which are nothing to do with our specialist fields. There was no kudos for publishing - indeed there was suspicion of 'doing your own research' instead of listing things unrelated to your field. Thirdly, many big research archives/libraries are increasingly fur coat and no knickers, all the money goes on PR and marketing people and their shallow gimmick-led initiatives, while cataloguing and curatorial expertise is cut.

On the plus side it was a steady nine-to-five job with not-too-much stress, but if you really care about the history and get 'obsessively absorbed in looking at books and manuscripts', you will really suffer as you are forced away from the interesting historical stuff to spend your time listing and sorting stuff unrelated to your historical interests - not to mention being managed by people who haven't the slightest interest or knowledge of the collections. If you were in the lucky position of getting a job where you would be allowed to do specialist historical cataloguing, then yes that is absorbing stuff where you learn a lot - but it's massively undervalued by universities, who discount it as compared to publishing articles, so if you try to get back into academia you will really be in trouble. However the crucial thing to understand is that these jobs are few and far between and increasingly under attack. That's why I left mine, I was increasingly being pushed to work sorting and listing modern unrelated stuff, which bored me to the point of insanity and I just didn't have the tidy business-like mind needed for that kind of work.
posted by Flitcraft at 11:25 AM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just realised I'd accidentally skipped one of the Clio blogposts. This is absolutely spot on:

Archivists see the documents as object to be stored, classified, and described. They are, as my cataloging professor described them, “information packages.” An archivist does not necessarily need to know what is contained in that package beyond a descriptive level. The archivist also does not need to know much about the creation of these packages beyond their provenance into the archive. Theorists in the archival profession have discussed these issues as they impact the goal of preserving the evidence of human activity, but those archivists are, again the academic archivists. The practicing archivist are much more utilitarian. They do not so much ask “how can these documents be used in the interpretation of history” as they ask “do we have the time and personnel to finish processing this collection” and “what does this collection look like.” Researchers are left to sort out the details of context, importance, and contents.

Thinking like a historian is a fundamental problem with me as an archivist. I am approaching the collections as a story to be told, not as an object to be described. In fact, while sitting in my library school classes and in meetings at work, I find that I have very little to contribute to the discussion of collection management. I find that I have no desire to contribute to the discussion of collection management. I find that I have little desire to learn more about the tools of my profession beyond how they will better help me to research history. I find that I have no interest in collections that do not tell interesting stories. The archivists are not wrong. They are very capable. What they do is important to me; but it is important to me as a historian. I do not think like an archivist. I think like a historian. I have no desire to change.

This sounds exactly right to me - it was my experience too and I was working in a big European research library with large archival collections. There was a big spilt in personality and approach between historians who couldn't get an academic positions and professional archivists. The historians were very much the frustrated misfits whose eyes glazed over when all the talk of Encoded Archival Description started. Honest to God, if you can't summon up enthusiasm for the like of EAD, and just sitting there spending your life listing and weeding stuff which means nothing to you, while your beloved medieval/early modern stuff goes neglected, then don't do this!
posted by Flitcraft at 12:09 PM on April 24, 2010

(I'm writing this from the perspective of someone who works as a librarian in what I think of as a prestigious history museum, but what I write of course reflects my opinion and not that of my employer.)

If you want to make this transition successful, you MUST NOT think of yourself as a historian who is "slumming it" as an archivist. You have to love what archivists do if you want to make this work. If you are at all unclear on what an archivist's daily job is like, volunteer in a few of them. Don't assume that it involves reading books or looking at old paper all day.

Librarians and archivists play a vital role in the world of research in the humanities, but it's a different role from that of historians. To offer an odd simile, we're kind of the connective tissue in the process: the sources are the bones, the historians are the muscle that mobilize the sources to create a certain argument, and librarians and archivists are the ligaments and tendons that connect the two and make the whole thing work. If you are one who thinks that playing this connective role is somehow less important than other parts of the process, then save yourself a lot of heartache and don't do it. Personally, I love helping people to find the exact sources they need for their projects, and have little to no interest in playing the reputation games that often go along with being a historian.

Now, you can be an active historian--in terms of writing papers, presenting at conferences, etc.--while also being an archivist, but if you would honestly prefer to be doing that than the day-to-day work of organizing collections, assisting researchers, maintaining databases, etc. that make up the life of an archivist, then please leave the profession to those of us who do. On the other hand, if you volunteer in an archives and find that you really like what happens there, then go for it. Yes, all the things Flitcraft says about the job market are absolutely true and must be taken into account, but don't exacerbate it by not fully loving the role of an archivist. (This seems to have been part of Clio's problem in the linked blog post. There are many, many other problems with that post that I don't have the time to go into at the moment. Suffice to say, there appear to have been some extenuating circumstances that led to her rocky transition.)

I could keep going, but I'm on an unstable computer with an unreliable internet connection, so I should probably post this and hope it goes through. Don't hesitate to email me if you have any questions!
posted by arco at 12:18 PM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thinking like a historian is a fundamental problem with me as an archivist.

This is what I mean when I say you have to know what an archivist does before you even think about making this transition. Clio seems to have presumed that just because she could handle the work to get a Ph.D, she could apply that to the world of archives. Please do not assume that the work of a librarian or archivist is somehow "easier" than the work of a historian; they are two different jobs, requiring different skill sets. Clio simply didn't know what she was doing when she made the leap, and her posts can serve as a cautionary tale.

Now, if you happen to have the skills and desire to be an archivist who also has the background of a trained historian, you will be potentially more valuable to employers. But, do not presume that the letters Ph.D after you name will somehow impress the director of the library or archives to which you are applying.
posted by arco at 12:45 PM on April 24, 2010

As an archivist who is not a historian (not even a history major in college), I can say that I wish I had a stronger background in history. This is especially true since I work at a government archives.

As a supervisor who will hire low-level archivists, I know that the work I'm hiring for isn't sexy, and can be downright dirty and boring. I need people who will do some real research, to do exactly the things Clio talked about in trying to organize a collection. Many times, it's nothing more than alphabetizing and putting stuff in folders. Other times, it's doing research not only about the agency and the records, but also on our own previous work with the materials.

I also need people who won't get caught up in the records they're processing. They need to keep focused on the goal: making the records available for other people.

So, like Clio discovered, you need to have a good idea of why you want to be an archivist. It's not all magical old records.
posted by ES Mom at 1:36 PM on April 24, 2010

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